The Moralist’s Catechism

Moralism is the teaching (doctrine) that God approves (accepts or justifies) of us either because we have cooperated with his grace (semi-Pelagianism) or because we have kept the law without his help (Pelagianism). According to moralism God approves of us because of what we are inherently, intrinsically not because of what Christ has done for us (obeyed, died, been raised) and certainly not because of the imputation (reckoning) to believers of what Christ has done but because of what he has wrought in us by grace and cooperation with grace.

In the history of Christianity, beginning with the Ebionites, Jewish Christians that taught the necessity of observing the Mosaic law in order to be accepted by God, there have always been moralists in the church. Indeed, in the medieval period, moralism became the majority view in the church. The Reformation was a rejection of moralism in favor of the gospel of God’s grace toward the unrighteous. Nevertheless, moralism persisted in the Anabaptist movement, in Romanism, and among ostensible evangelicals such as Andreas Osiander and others. In the seventeenth century moralism returned in the Arminian/Remonstrant movement, in the Socinian movement, and appeared most subtly in Reformed circles in the teaching of Richard Baxter (whom many Reformed folk today hail unqualifiedly as a hero but whose moralism John Owen excoriated) and in the neonomian movement in the 18th century in Scotland. It is still with us in the self-described Federal Vision movement.

In Reformed circles moralism often persists undetected because it begins by sounding orthodox but like the scorpion the sting is in the tail. Pay close attention to this catechism and see how well you do at playing the Reformed version of Where’s Wally?*

Q: What is justification?
A: Justification is God’s initial declaration of righteousness upon those who trust in Christ, live in the grace of baptism, and obey the gospel.

Q: What is faith?
A: Faith is repentance, trust in Christ, and faithfulness.

Q: What is repentance?
A: Faith

Q: What is the gospel?
A: The gospel is that everyone who believes and cooperates with grace will be justified.

Q: What is grace?
A: A free, unmerited gift that God gives to all the faithful members of the covenant.

Q: What is the covenant?
A: It is God’s unconditional, free promise that if we obey his gospel and cooperate with grace we will be justified.

Q: What is God’s law?
A: God’s law is his moral will revealed in creation, at Sinai, i.e., the gospel.

Q: What is the distinction between law and gospel?
A: It is the distinction between the old law and the new.

Q: What is regeneration?
A: Regeneration is the new life conferred upon those who are baptized and thereby united to Christ, elected, justified, adopted, and who continue in that grace.

Q. What is baptism?
A: Baptism is that promise to the children of believers and to adult converts and the sacrament whereby we are elected, united to Christ, justified, and adopted if we continue in grace.

Q: What is the Lord’s Supper?
A: That sacrament whereby God renews his covenant to save those who believe and cooperate with the grace given in baptism

Q: Who should come to the table of the Lord?
A: All baptized persons

Q: What is perseverance of the saints?
A: Perseverance is cooperation by the baptized with the grace given them in baptism and the supper unto final justification.

Q: Can a person lose his salvation?
A: No one can lose their salvation unless they fail to cooperate sufficiently with the grace of baptism.

Q: What is final justification?
A: God’s recognition of the inherent, intrinsic Spirit-wrought sanctity and righteousness by grace and cooperation with grace in those only who have trusted in Christ and have kept their part of the covenant.

*That’s the UK version of Where’s Waldo?

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  1. Owen used the same technique to critique Baxter if my memory serves. Can’t find the reference at the moment though.

  2. I laughed and cringed reading thru this. I think you nailed it. Maybe in my denomination (the PCA) we could ask potential candidates for ministry if they would subscribe to this in good faith (since some already seem to anyway).

    The sad part is that by denying the Gospel these men take away true assurance. How can one hope in the promises of God if their fulfillment is contingent upon my faithfulness? This, I think, is the error of the Judaizers and the error of Rome, and it keeps sneaking back in to the church thru “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” I am so grateful for Paul’s warning to the Ephesians elders: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert…” (Eph. 20.28-31).
    Our elders need to stay on top of this issue, and I appreciate your assistance in that regard.


  3. Is the definition of Moralism used here a standard one in theology? It seems to be different than the one used in philosophy, where moralism is usually meant to be a practice of moralizing. With that definition, a moralist would be someone who tries to translate God’s will into static moral rules or laws. So to me, the group of people who are most close to moralism are the theonomists.

    As a religion, Islam is a serious moralism. Apart from Roman culture, Islam is another factor that influenced moralism in Christianity.

    • No cigar. Theonomists have been very critical of moralism. They define moralism as placing man-made rules in place of God’s rules. Say what you will about theonomy, but charging it with moralism is a no go. They would also reject moralism as defined by Scott.

        • Yes, I guess that’s true. There are no doubt ideological and personal connections between the theonomic movement and the FV movement, but that is also true with respect to Reformed theology or covenant theology. FVism has its selling points — anti-subjectivism, liturgical & musical richness, catholicity — that attracts many people whether theonomist or not.

          However, FV and theonomy are opposed in their starting axioms. FVism is a church first movement while theonomy is a kingdom first movement. It was this difference that brought Jim Jordan to reject theonomy (or more broadly reconstructionism), since he is a church first guy.

          But I know R. J. Rushdoony was very much opposed to moralism of any sort, and he followed L. Berkhof’s *Systematic Theology* for his views on soteriology and on any other theological issue for that matter.

          Let’s be critical of theonomy, but let us also be fair in our criticisms.

      • Of course it all depends on how you define moralism; as you say, “they have been very critical of moralism” according to what “[t]hey define moralism”. According to the definition given by New Oxford American Dictionary, which I use, most of the theonomists are greatly influenced by moralism.

          • Vern,

            Yes or no; it all depends on what you mean by “believed in”; believe it to to be the eternal law, or the natural law, or the positive law (not as a human creation but as a special case of the divine law), or even something else.

  4. Dr. Clark,
    This is a very helpful resource. I did catch a small typo in the catechism, though.

    “Q: What is perseverance of the saints?
    A: Perseverance is cooperation by the baptized with the grace given then in baptism and the supper unto final justification.”

    It should be ” … the grace given them in baptism …”

  5. Dr. Clark,

    Many of them look obviously false, to me. Are any of these catechism confessional? I’m guessing none are.

  6. Dr. Clark,

    Fine, the concept of cooperating with grace indicates moralism. Yet, cooperative grace is what I often see attributed to Augustine as part of his analysis of Christian grace. Is there any obvious here? Is something being ignored? Is Augustine’s cooperative grace something quite different? Or was Augustine a moralist?

    • I think we can say that Augustine confused justification and sanctification. Where as the Reformers distinguished them. Quoting Calvin:

      “Even the sentiment of Augustine, or at least his mode of expressing it, cannot be entirely approved of. For although he is admirable in stripping man of all merit of righteousness, and transferring the whole praise of it to God, he classes the grace by which we are regenerated to newness of life under the head of sanctification. Scripture, when it treats of justification by faith, leads us in a very different direction. Turning away our view from our own works, it bids us look only to the mercy of God, and the perfection of Christ.”

      “It is not unknown to me, that Augustine gives a different explanation; for he thinks that the righteousness of God is the grace of regeneration; and this grace he allows to be free, because God renews us, when unworthy, by his Spirit; and from this he excludes the works of the law, that is, those works, by which men of themselves endeavour, without renovation, to render God indebted to them…. But that the Apostle includes all works without exception, even those which the Lord produces in his own people, is evident from the context.”

      These quotes are from Paul Helm who has a helpful article on this:

      • According to “A Brief History of Covenant Theology” , “The greatest of all the early fathers, however, was Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), the giant upon whose shoulders the rest of the church has stood. … Most importantly we must note that Augustine turned to covenant theology against the Pelagians (who denied original sin) and against the semi-Pelagians, who affirmed original sin, but who argued that we could cooperate with divine grace for our righteousness before God.”

        Given Dr. Clark’s analysis, there must something subtle conceptually or terminology-wise in Augustine’s theology.

        • Eric,

          There were two significant problems in Augustine’s soteriology from a Reformational pov. 1) he remained an infusionist. He could hardly have done otherwise in the 4th-5th centuries given his assumptions. In other words, for Augustine (most of the time) God sovereignly infuses us with grace which works sanctity unto justification. 2) Further, he had an underdeveloped doctrine of imputation of Christ’s (alien) righteousness.

          As Warfield showed in his work on Augustine, Calvin’s debt to Augustine was considerable but as the quote provided above showed Calvin was conscious that the Reformation was a departure from Augustine at points.

  7. Let’s all raise a glass to theologians who try to have it both ways: positing genuine grace that is nevertheless contingent on obedience (other than Christ’s obedience, that is).

    It’s a deeply incoherent position, but few people have the boldness to go all the way and be baldly Pelagian. And it’s easy to gloss over the incoherence with pious notions.

    This catechism does a good job of making the incoherence obvious. Thanks, Dr. Clark.

  8. As Charlie Dennison used to say, those who deny the covenant of works at the front door will always sneak it in through the back door.

  9. Great stuff Scott. I am convinced this is the biggest danger the church faces today, and it will always remain so. I have returned relatively recently to a Reformational understanding of the centrality of God’s grace to the undeserving. It has become painfully evident to me just how tainted with moralism so much “evangelical” preaching is.

  10. Dr. Clark, you give us a catechism Q/A, but not the source. Did you make this up as a caricature of what you believe the FV teaches, or is this an actually held catechism of a FV advocate’s church?

    • Hi Dr. Clark,

      I have pretty much the same question as Daniel F. I’m curious as to the source of this “catechism.” Scary stuff! Especially as the Q/A format is fresh in my mind–I have been/am working through Spurgeon’s and Keach’s Catechisms…

    • Hi Daniel

      I think this is a fairly representative account of what the FV teaches laid out in such a way as to make it clear to those who know what Scripture and the Reformed confessions actually teach.

      • Why not present it to an FVer and see what he has to say about it? This way we wouldn’t have to guess how accurate your caricature is. Or, better, just quote your opponents where you think they are in error and critique them. Putting words in their mouths is silly unless those words are based on words that came out of their mouths. But if that’s the case, why not just use those?

        • Jordan,

          I’ve been reading the FV for about 10 years or so. I’ve a pretty good idea that this IS what they teach. This is why the PCA, the OPC, and the URCs, among others have rejected the doctrines taught in this catechism.

          We don’t have to guess. They’ve written books and articles and web pages and blogs and I’ve had discussions with them.

          Here’s a resource page:

          • Dr. Clark, Jordan, and Ron,

            I doubted as much. I could not possibly imagine a FVer writing this. Jordan, you are right. This is a straw man. To write that, and apply it to the “federal vision”, not even mentioning that it is a made up caricature, borders on dishonesty at worst, and is uncharitable at best.

            Dr. Clark, please quote FV men when you refute their positions. When I ask questions of “why you think” such and such on the FV, I normally just get a link to your intro on the FV. I’ve heard very little real interaction with FV on this blog (unlike Greenbaggins), mostly just blanket statements that “The PCA, OPC, and URC” have all rejected it. First of all, that is false (at least concerning the PCA – I’m PCA, so I researched that). In 2007, the PCA GA gave RECOMMENDATIONS to the churches through their report. It was no trial, no court. Simply a re-affirmation of our beliefs, and concerns about something called the FV – a report that never asked any FV proponent if it accurately portrayed their views. No proponent of the FV has ever been proven in any kind of ecclesiastical court to be out of line with our standards. On the contrary, they have been acquitted time and time again, only to be re-accused by a minority.

            If you wanted to say, “this is my understanding of what a consistent FV Catechism would be,” you would be honest, and I would simply disagree with you. Please change your post to reflect this.

            I know you say you have been reading them for 10 years.But you’re demonstrated many times that you’ve been reading them in a certain light. I visited Moscow 5 years ago, wary because of things I’d heard, and ended up staying, and getting to know these men, listening to their preaching, seeing them live their lives, AND read their books. I cannot imagine ANY FV proponents that I know holding to that “catechism.” The gospel as cooperating with grace? Cooperating with grace (ie: works) as the cause of salvation? Are you kidding? I should keep a tally of the hundreds of times I’ve heard that specifically refuted by Doug Wilson in sermons to his congregation.

            • Daniel,

              Have you read /Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry?/

              Does that count?

              It’s not a blog post, I know, but some folks still think edited, published, peer-reviewed books still mean something.

            • I also don’t think FV teaches cooperationism. What they teach is objective covenantalism. All decretal terms become covenantal terms by way of the FVist Verification Principle. Thus, for the FVist it’s not about failing to “cooperate” with grace but failing to “cooperate” with the church. For FVists the church is now the primary savior of man, at least in practical terms.

  11. A few REAL answers to these Catechism questions:

    What is Justification?
    We affirm we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone. Faith alone is the hand which is given to us by God so that we may receive the offered grace of God. Justification is God’s forensic declaration that we are counted as righteous, with our sins forgiven, for the sake of Jesus Christ alone.

    We affirm that justification is through faith in Jesus Christ, and not through works of the law, whether those works were revealed to us by God, or manufactured by man. (FV Joint Statement).

    What is perseverance of the saints?
    We affirm that those who have been justified by God’s grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are saved to the uttermost and will spend eternity with Christ and his saints in glory forever. (ibid)

    What is Baptism?
    We affirm that God formally unites a person to Christ and to His covenant people through baptism into the triune Name, and that this baptism obligates such a one to lifelong covenant loyalty to the triune God, each baptized person repenting of his sins and trusting in Christ alone for his salvation. (Ibid, Italics mine)

    These have been just a few answers that stood out to me.


  12. Daniel,

    Did you see the post at the Reformed Reader on some of these topics? Here are some quotes that Shane posted:

    “By baptism one is joined to Christ’s body, united to Him covenantally, and given all the blessings and benefits of his work” (Summary Statement of AAPC’s Position on Covenant, Baptism, and Salvation).

    “In baptism, we are transfered by the power of the Spirit, from the old Adam, and the wrath and curse of God which rested upon the old man, into the new man, which is Jesus Christ.” “By baptism the Spirit joins us to Christ since he is the elect one and the Church is the elect people” (Steve Wilkinis, “Covenant and Baptism” & “The Legacy of the Halfway Covenant”).

    “All baptized persons receive, objectively, the same promised inheritance and privileges” (Rich Lusk, “Do I Believe in Baptismal Regeneration?”).

    “Baptism is covenantally efficacious. It brings every person baptized into an objective and living covenant relationship with Christ, whether the baptized person is elect or reprobate” (Douglas Wilson, “Credos: On Baptism,” #8).

    Contrast that with Bavinck:

    “Faith alone apart from any sacrament communicates, and causes believers to enjoy, all the benefits of salvation…Baptism can only signify and seal the benefits that are received by faith and thereby strengthen that faith” (Reformed Dogmatics, IV.515).

    • Dr. Clark,

      Vern Crisler understands something you either don’t understand, or refuse to understand (re cooperation comment).

      The quotes you mentioned (though I think I would differ with Wilkins there…) are not a contrast to Bavinck. On the contrary, they build upon Bavinck’s statement, which I agree with whole-heartily.

  13. Having escaped modern evangelicalism, I think I can recognize back door legalism when I see it and this is always what comes to mind even when I hear the denial of it[legalism] with orthodox statements by FV’ers that have been neutered of their precision and power by means of definitional infidelity.

    This is a strapping on of a yoke that is external for profit[[making God a debtor], not the powerful and easy yoke spoken of by Jesus–that kind produced by the gratitude of understanding that He did what we can never do, because no good thing is in man. I dont want to be misunderstood, per James works are necessary, but it’s not the act, it’s the motivation–In the FV scheme, the emphasis is on man just enough to polute it’s produce.

  14. Hi Scott,

    I don’t think FVism separates grace from the church in a decretal sense, or claims that the church is the repository of grace in a decretal sense. Rather, FV positivism holds that separating grace and the church is meaningless — meaningless for all practical, objectifiable, verifiable purposes.

    But yes, I would say that FVism teaches sacerdotalism, but it is not so much a theoretical as a practical sacerdotalism. Undoubtedly FVists believe in sovereign grace, but it’s a sovereign grace that doesn’t really MATTER anymore. The only thing that counts now is the sovereign, managerial, mother church. She is the dispenser of grace for all practical purposes. How else could she not be if the divine decree (grace) is placed under an epoche — tabled and sidelined for the duration?

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